He was known simply as ‘Bill The Bastard’. His was an epithet he’d have worn with pride and, perhaps, no little arrogance. He was a big, strong, strapping Aussie who knew no fear. His exploits on the Gallipoli Peninsula and in the Middle Eastern desert are the stuff of legend.
In a war that created many heroes, Bill the Bastard was right up there among the greatest, and yet for him there would be no VC, no MD; for him, through time, recognition has been in the memory of others, some who knew and shared that time of explosive noise and sheer, gut-clamping terror, and others who came later.
Bill was no leader of men, nor ordinary footslogger. Bill was a Waler, a horse sent on a voyage to a far distant land, and one from which he would never return.
Even in his early days at Liverpool Army Camp in Sydney’s south-west, Bill was a handful. Initially numbered among the steeds used to test the skill and mettle of light horse recruits, he managed to buck every last one of those who mounted him. The recruiting officers declared him unridable. Thus, considered unsuited to riding, he was delegated to become a pack horse whose outlook would be to carry munitions and general supplies.
Bill was one of 136,000 Australian warhorses shipped off to the Middle East in World War I. He, among many others, was cared for by Banjo Paterson, a war correspondent and poet who would later lead the Australian Remount Squadron. In a diary note, writing a humorous variation on an old axiom, Paterson reported “You can’t lead Bill the Bastard to anything, and you certainly can’t make him drink”.
Bill was sent to Gallipoli, where his work as a pack horse included the sad task of carrying out the body of ‘the man with the donkey’, John Simpson Kirkpatrick following his death on May, 19 1915. Bill suffered two gunshot wounds while at Gallipoli, with one of the wounds inoperable, the bullet never removed.
At that time, Bill was to meet the man who became his best friend, and the only one able to ride him. Major Michael Shanahan, tall and confident, and Bill the Bastard, the 16 hand chestnut who feared no man, stood and eyed each other in the compound. There appeared to be a form of recognition between the two, and thus it proved. Shanahan was a man long before his time in at least one regard. He was what we now term a horse whisperer. His philosophy with Bill was to whisper to him, take him for walks and to offer pats as he recuperated. Such treatment, backed up with a supply of Licorice Allsorts, gained Shanahan Bill’s absolute trust.
Returning to Egypt after the Gallipoli withdrawal, the Australians and their New Zealand brethren were sent to the Sinai, Egypt, where they took part in the pivotal Battle of Romani, Bill and Shanahan among them.
In early-August 1916, Turkish troops embarked on a massive, layered attack to make a breakthrough to the Suez Canal. Finally defeated by mounted ANZAC forces, they retreated leaving behind as many as 5,000 dead.
During the battle, Shanahan saw five Tasmanian soldiers whose mounts had been shot out from under them. He and Bill forced their way to the men, fighting on as best they could, but effectively doomed without their steeds. Swinging one man up behind him and with two others suspended on each stirrup, they carried the men 5 kilometres across the hot desert sands to safety.
Later in the battle, Michael Shanahan took a gunshot in his left leg, passing out on Bill’s back, but the faithful horse brought his friend safely back to base. The leg could not be saved and had to be amputated. Amazingly, Shanahan continued to ride after surviving the operation.
Michael Shanahan was able to return to Australia, living out his life and dying in 1964 aged 94. Bill, however, could never return. He fared better than most of his 136,000 equine brethren, the greatest number of whom were shot, living out his days in the land where he first saw action, Turkey, finally dying there in 1921.
Bill the Bastard earned his rightful place in the legend of Anzac. Rest in peace, big fellow.
Lest we forget.